A Common Wealth Endeavor at Common Ground

Small and Tired. The title had me from the get-go. Turns out to be a fascinating 2013 play by Australian Kit Brookman–based loosely on a big and fierce source, the Oresteia. “Loosely” is a key word here. It will not help you to follow the pains and struggles of this contemporary family if you try to directly tie them to the happenings in Aeschylus’ House of Atreus. For the clear lines between action and consequence quiver and blur without the gods and their rules, and this modern family founders in a mess of its own making. Or is it of their own making? Brookman has his Pylades point out, early in his first encounter with Orestes, that even generals are following orders, implying that the gods of war, at least, persist in our time. (Cue the Bob Dylan, 1963. “Masters of War.”)

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The ensemble in the Common Wealth Endeavors production of SMALL AND TIRED, at Common Ground Theatre through Jan. 23. Photo: Alex Maness.

What the two stories really have in common is war. Long, stupid war, in which men slaughter not just each other but women and children, and their slaughter wounds and kills the women and children they left at home. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to pacify the goddess Artemis; in Small and Tired, Iphigenia kills herself after seeing photographs from her (never named) father’s war–bloody Afghanistan. Nobody in the family was right after that. Young Orestes was sent far away to boarding school; now, upon his father’s death (the how of which is never told) he’s come “home” to organize the funeral, since his crazy sister Electra and his puzzling mother Clytemnestra can’t seem to manage, even with the help of Electra’s nice husband Jim.

This Common Wealth Endeavors presentation, currently at Common Ground Theatre (through Jan. 23) is the first US production of Small and Tired. Directed by Common Wealth Endeavors’ founder, Gregor McElvogue, it is the latest show in his ongoing effort to introduce us to English language plays from the rest of the English-speaking world. McElvogue, who is British, trained at the London Central School of Speech and Drama, and he has added hugely to the Triangle theatre scene for years, first as an emotionally powerful actor and clear-eyed director and now as the leader of these Common Wealth Endeavors. His directorial senses of timing and tone have resulted in some very fine performances of demanding plays.

Those senses seemed slightly out of kilter in the Jan. 9 performance that I saw. Although various scenes came vibrantly to life, in others, the actors’ delivery was wooden, their words sounding recited, rather than spoken. By rights, I should have been wrung out by the play’s end, but the erratic intensity levels precluded that. And generally, the pace was a bit languid–it did not contrast enough with the slow-moving scene changes, which in themselves were interesting–dim, cooly-lit, they allowed for tableaux as well as for moving the furniture, and were a marvelous way to indicate the passage of time.

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Jane Holding as Clytemnestra, and Justin Brent Johnson as her son Orestes, shortly before their final parting in SMALL AND TIRED. Photo: Alex Maness.

Although all of the men–Justin Brent Johnson as Orestes; Justin Peoples as Pylades; and Lihn Schladweiler as Jim–had some powerful speeches, the woman were more consistent. Laurel Ullman was pretty scary as Electra, but her force could have been greater with a few beats more of silence–she seemed a bit rushed. Jane Holding as Clytemnestra, however, cannot be rushed. Holding spun out her pauses; her unexpected comments burst forth as if from an opened pressure valve. Using stillness and slight shadings of voice and facial expression she communicated implacable will and vast suffering. She knows her line is ending. Iphigenia dead all these years; Orestes gay; Electra childless. All that is left is the long dwindling. Holding distills all that into the poignant moment when she says goodbye to Orestes. That moment, along with many others studded throughout the play’s 100 minutes, make the production’s shortcomings easily dismissible.

For tickets go here .

 

Vacation’s Over, Theatre’s in Full Swing

Area theaters are kicking the new year off right. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 series has a very interesting one-woman show through Jan. 10, KJ Sanchez’ Highway 47.

One of the play’s purposes, of course, is for the artist to come to terms with being her father’s daughter. But unlike many personal history-centered performances, Sanchez uses those personal meditations to bolster the tragic story, rather than making herself and her trials the point of the production. Certainly she reveals a good deal of herself, but (so happy to report) her play is not screaming “me, me, me.” Instead, she allows this story to reveal a little-known aspect of the history of this continent, and cannily places it in the long theatrical tradition of exploring human frailty and venality, and the ties and taints of blood.

Go here to read my full review on cvnc.org.

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At PlayMakers’ PRC2 through Sunday, Jan. 10.

 

Elsewhere: take your pick, or gorge on theater day and night.

Friday brings the first night (also Jan. 9 and 14) of a developmental reading of a new work by Mike Wiley, Downrange: Voices from the Homefront, in Swain Hall at UNC-CH. Presented by the UNC Dept. of Communication Studies and Street Signs, this is the first in this Process Series, Veterans and Their Families: A Festival of New Works.  (919) 929-2787. http://www.streetsignscenter.org/

In Durham, the Delta Boys reprise their production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at Manbites Dog through Jan. 10. Shows are selling out. Contact Manbites for tickets. www.manbitesdogtheater.org or 919.682.3343.

Common Wealth Endeavors previewed Small and Tired, a new play by Australian author Kit Brookman, last night at Common Ground Theatre. The official opening is tonight, and the run extends through Jan. 23.  Directed by Gregor McElvogue and starring Jane Holding, Justin Brent Johnson, Justin Peoples, Linh Schladweiler and Laurel Ullman, the play reworks the Ancient Greek myths surrounding the house of Atreus, setting them in a very recognizable landscape: the suburban back yard. tickets@fromcommonwealth.com  919 410 8631. Review coming here next week.

There’s lots more! Check your local calendars.

A New Play On An Old War: The ArtsCenter premieres commissioned work INTO THE BREACH

Opening tonight at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: INTO THE BREACH, Ian Bowater’s new play, commissioned by the ArtsCenter for its season examining World War I. Bowater, who is English and has had a long career in theatre and film, has crafted a thoughtful play centered on a group of “Shakespeare’s Boys” and their schoolmaster from Stratford-on-Avon, who all leap or are pulled into the vortex of the war.

Left to Right: Jeb Brinkley, Brandon Rafalson, Justin Johnson, Peter Vance, David Hudson portray men from Avon who take the one-way trip to war. Photo: courtesy of Jason Abide.

Left to Right: Jeb Brinkley, Brandon Rafalson, Justin Johnson, Peter Vance, David Hudson portray men from Avon who take the one-way trip to war.
Photo: courtesy of Jason Abide.

After Taylor Mac’s flippant brief gloss on WWI in his recent performance in Chapel Hill, Bowater’s play is refreshingly serious. Its characters are more types than individuals (I saw a dress rehearsal), but they are real types (including the very English proto-Nazi), and through them we can glimpse the way those types both shape and are shaped by large historical forces. They are the men–the glorious dead–whose names etch memorials in every English village and town, and in towns all over the then far-flung British Empire.

The boys studied and played Shakespeare’s Henry V at school, and in this play, they study it again as they prepare a show for the other men at a hospital not far from the battlefront. The play reveals different things to the men now, and they find the leaden tones along with the golden in the great speeches, as they grapple with the (im-)morality of Realpolitik. They are joined by Laurel Ullman as Nurse Ailey/the Angel of Mons.

Director Gregor McElvogue, also British, brings his skill at eliciting both the brutish and the bruised from the performers, and with his usual careful reserve, gives us a fresh context for the war that did not end all wars. The waste of that war becomes more poignant and pitiful when we see it driven (in part) by the pride of “the men of Agincourt,” “the band of brothers,” who had so recently celebrated the harvest with song and beer.

The big surprise of the show is the songs. The cast does a wonderful job, from the harvest songs to popular ditties (inky-dinky parlez-vous!), and the song and dance routines make the pall all the darker in contrast.

The show runs Oct. 10-12 and 16-19.

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